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A tale of three parties: Laurie Penny sobers up over Labour

The British left is finally knocking back the Alka-Seltzer of humility and stumbling to its feet.

Manchester, 2008. With the financial edifices of Wall Street and the City of London tumbling like dominoes, the Labour Party faithful have gathered at the annual New Statesman conference reception at to soak away their panic. In the grand, high-ceilinged ballroom of the town hall, the old neoliberal certainties are dissipating like chill vapour: the one question on everyone's lips is whether David Miliband, a man who ideologically and personally resembles the banana-grasping voodoo corpse of Blairism left to rot in a pool of inertia for two years, will make a bid for the leadership and reanimate the only model of electoral success the left has known in the past generation.

Meanwhile, a young cabinet minister with an awkward haircut, who is at this point most famous for not being David Miliband, takes the platform to deliver some calming platitudes. Miliband minor's soothing quips about the humiliations of being a younger brother fall on dull ears. Everyone is more intent on drinking hard -- drinking with the cheery desperation that only the British can muster when the streets are on fire and the bar is free.

Fast forward to Brighton, 2009. In the dying days of the last Labour administration, the great and good of the British left have once more gathered at the New Statesman party to drown their sorrows. The recession has hit hard, and nobody now believes that Labour will win the next election; privately, there are many who suspect that it might not deserve to win. The corporate lounge at the soulless seafront hotel gradually fills with bewildered delegates, drifting through the glass doors in ones and twos with the shellshocked expressions of war refugees. The room is too bright, full of static and suspicion; knots of gossip and weary recrimination cluster in the corners of the party. It's like the disco at the end of the world.

The speaker this year is David Miliband, but unfortunately, just as he is ushered onto the stage, somebody brings out the booze. The party faithful charge across the crackling carpet towards the bar like victims of a natural disaster mobbing a Red Cross van, only with substantially less dignity. Nobody listens to Miliband Major, and why would they? The jaws of the credit crunch are snapping shut, and Torygeddon is approaching: not even Blairism can save us now.

Fast forward to this weekend: it's the 2010 Labour Party conference, and we're back in at the same party, in the same lofty setting as 2008 -- the decadent Victorian granite of Manchester Town Hall. And this time, everybody is waiting for Ed Miliband. The shy junior cabinet minister from 2008 has just been anointed leader of the Labour Party in a nail-biting victory over his elder brother, the heir apparent, we have watched his strange rubbery face on the front pages and ubiquitous television screens for 24 hours, and now we are waiting anxiously for Ed like schoolgirls waiting for their prom date to arrive.

When he finally does arrive, flanked by beaming young volunteers who have just been elevated to the status of political flunkies, a spontaneous cheer erupts: a triumphant, rather irreverent cheer, peppered with whoops and wolf-whistles. Ed Miliband is manifestly not the revivified corpse of Blairism -- instead, even with the heady flush of new leadership, he still calls to mind the dorky, swotty kid at the back of the class to whom, for some indefinable reason, nobody has paid much attention. Until now.

Ed takes the stage and tells us, with a rather sad smile and not a hint of swagger, that he wants the Labour Party to change. He wants the Labour Party to show humility over its past mistakes, and to "question old truths". He wants the Labour party to be the "natural home" for the next generation of activists, in part because it is young volunteers who have made his campaign such a success. He wants the party to unite, to abandon factionalism, and most of all -- more than anything -- he wants "change". Unlike the smooth, polished Anglo-American political salesmen of the post-crash era, you suspect that he actually means it.

It is perhaps a testament to how comfortable the Labour Party has become with hierarchy and privilege that the sudden leadership of Ed Miliband -- who is, after all, not an outsider but a son of leafy North London from a distinguished Labour lineage, whose only claim to political insurgency is that he is not the elder brother -- should have so shaken the party faithful. In a truly radical party, this would not have been so stunning a change of direction, but New Labour has not been truly radical for many years.

Expectations were low, and this is enough; it's enough to tremble the foundations of the British left and disturb its stagnant, hierarchial customs, so reliant on anointed heirs and settled successions of power. The gathering at the New Statesman party is suffused with panicked excitement. The delegates are behaving like a group of normally compliant school pupils in an empty classroom, when someone unexpected -- say, the dorky kid at the back of the class -- has just got up from his place and sat down in the teacher's chair. It's a scandalous, it's thrilling, it's surely against the rules!

The overwhelming impression is that anything could happen, and the room bubbles with breezy expectation and just a suggestion of naughtiness. Personal and political seductions are attempted; old friendships and alliances are rekindled. Delegates flirt, make eyes at one another and have meaningful discussions about the living wage and progressive taxation over glasses of orange juice, the boozing less frantic than in previous years.

It's been a long hangover, but this morning, the British left is finally knocking back the Alka-Seltzer of humility and stumbling to its feet. After all, there's work to be done.

 

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.